Morning Songs

I stumbled across this piece of writing in an old journal of mine recently. After a bit of editing, it became what I would share this past Sunday at my dad’s surprise retirement party, as a tribute to him. This one’s got all the senses.

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I have just finished my first semester studying religion at an obscure liberal arts college in Vermont. I return to Michigan as summer is settling in, my head full of Buddhist philosophies of detachment and compassion, my heart in the throes of an impossible love affair. At the beginning of June, I pay a visit to my father. It is 2008: the year before my father will find love and companionship again, the last year of many he has spent alone.

I escape the city, the distractions, and my mother’s teeming house in Ann Arbor, where I am immersed in the complexities of almost-step-families, pets, body work clients, and my teenage brother’s dreamy worlds and fashionable friends.

I stop in Lansing to teach a songwriting lesson and then cut loose up to Hubbardston, the place I come from. I barrel down the enchanted, rain-broken roads at twilight. The manure off the lush green fields smells almost sweet to my homesick nose. The sun stumbles through the patchwork of clouds, unable to keep itself decently covered. As I draw closer to the farm, it starts raining again, just a few fat drops with the sun still exposing itself lewdly in the distance. The brown of the dirt road glows with the shuddering satisfaction of quenched earth. The green of the fields looks like it is whirling up the very breeze that blows into my car—a magic trick the plants have been practicing just for me.

When I get to the farm I talk with Dad about politics in the school system—teachers’ rights and the administration’s disgraceful neglect of students—and we listen to a recording of the concert we played with my younger brother last Friday. Then he heads upstairs to rest up for his daily ritual that begins at 4:00 AM.

I stay up till nearly midnight, suddenly charged with energy. My fingers fly across the keys of my laptop as I save drafts of emails to every single person whose unanswered letter sits in my inbox. There’s no internet here, but I can’t stop the poetry, the philosophical musings, the admiration and respect as it flows to people I’ve known all my life, people I’ve just met, people I’ll never meet again. I don’t know what’s come over me—usually, I am not so reckless in my love of humanity.

I am awakened early by my father’s routine. I slept in the walkthrough, so he comes and goes on his way to the shower or to close the windows he’d opened during the night to cool the house. I could have put my ear plugs in, as I do most nights lately, but I didn’t, and I still don’t, even as his careful footsteps keep rousing me from sleep.

I want to hear this ritual, to be a part of it somehow. I want to feel that I know my father’s daily life intimately, as if I had grown up with him. As if it hadn’t been fourteen years since I’ve lived in this house. I don’t mind being woken up. I love every moment of his footsteps in the hall, his shower running, his window and fan adjustments.

I never fall back into a deep sleep. About an hour after he leaves, I rise to do as my father does. While he is away teaching, I find myself playing out what I know about his ritual. I let myself feel like my father’s daughter, like it wouldn’t be so bad to take a lesson from him. Surely, I will replicate some of his ways without even realizing it sometimes. I might as well embrace this fully, approach it head on. Perhaps with acceptance of the fact, I will be more able to change the habits I don’t want to replicate—the things that I believe made my father suffer.

So instead of taking my breakfast to a sunny spot, as I normally would, I sit down at the old round oak table in the dining room. There, he has a cutting board that he takes his meals on, and a duct-tape-and-tissue-box construction to prop up his books and magazines. A metal reading lamp with one of those natural-light bulbs sits to one side. I prop up my book on the tissue box, turn on the lamp, and sit in my father’s seat.

For lunch, I take it a step further: I boil soba noodles and heat up a jar of his homemade buckwheat turkey sauce with chopped carrots and greens. I eat what my father eats every morning. He says it gives him energy as he goes forth to give his whole heart and mind, as well as his popcorn, bad jokes and deafening sneezes, to his special education students. He needs all the vigor he can muster to stay on his game, and be present to these rejected cases, the kids no one else knows what to do with.

This is a part of my father’s story that I do want to replicate. I want to eat buckwheat every morning so I have the energy to give myself to the rejected and struggling ones.

Between breakfast and lunch, I pray the way my father does. On my own, I have developed my own postures of prayer. I have become critical of the habit of bending before God, as if I am somehow unworthy of fully basking in glory. I prefer to turn my face up to the light. But today, I get down on the rug in my father’s living room, just as he does every morning at 4:00, and I tuck my knees under me and curl forward into a little ball. I rest my forehead on my clasped hands, and give thanks to God. I send God’s love and peace to those I love and those I don’t know and those I want to learn to love. I pray to be a better person, there in the humble stance of my father.

After lunch, I sleep on the couch the way he always does after big meals, or sometimes all night when us kids come to visit. He took the bed out of his and mom’s old bedroom awhile back, and left a painting job half-done in there. Now there are only enough beds for the four of us kids to sleep comfortably when we are all there. Dad moves down to the couch without giving it a second thought.

When I wake up, I walk to the woods out past the alfalfa field. As I know my dad has done countless times on his hermetic forest romps, I head to the pond, strip off my clothes, and jump in.

It’s a spring-fed pond, and the water has a few warm pockets on the surface, but it is mostly as cold as March. I swim hard through the cotton-like seed pods that have accumulated on the water’s surface. When I pull myself back up on the raft, I am surprised at how tired my arms have grown. I can barely lift myself up.

Dad is back from school when I finally tromp back through the fields, spurred on by the rumbles of thunder and the clouds coming in. After taking his own rest on the couch, he gets up and makes me breakfast for dinner. We sit down to a feast that reminds me of my happiest memories of visiting my dad after the divorce. The food is the typical culinary style of my father—overburdened with vegetables, free of red meats, a little zealous on certain seasonings—but something about it is exquisite. It tastes better than anything I’ve had in years. He makes scrambled eggs with carrots, broccoli and green onions, cooked just right and bursting with a buttery flavor, though I know there is no butter in them. There are strips of turkey bacon cooked in the convection oven, with a sweet tang to the meat despite their low fat and sugar content. There are fried potatoes with some tarragon and dill, that are just the right amount of greasy and salty.

For dessert, Dad puts on pancake batter made of fresh-ground buckwheat, oats and pears. We sit down to steaming cakes, me with butter and him without, and top them with yogurt and local maple syrup. The pears are tender and sublime.

I recall so many breakfasts Dad did up right for us when we came to visit. It was one of the ways I knew—in spite of all the distance, sadness and uncertainty in our relationship with him—how much he loved us.

After dinner, we talk more about the politics at the school, and about the kids he tries to stand up for. One autistic student has been writing a lot of stories with violence in them. The administration is trying to get him to stop, but my dad suggested that maybe this could be a constructive tendency, and the student could become the next Stephen King. They did not appreciate the encouraging remark, particularly since it was made in a meeting with the student himself present.

We turn to the topic of Christianity, and the things we respect about the more conservative Evangelical members of our faith, and the things about them that make us grind our teeth. We stand out on the wrap-around front porch, waiting for a rainbow to appear among the deep gray of the clouds. We discuss the church’s debate about homosexuality and the cultural contexts in the Bible. I find his views more similar to mine than I’d thought, or maybe we are both just going softer—more open to encompassing everyone’s heartfelt say in things.

Later we move to the near-dark parlor and sit at the piano. Dad plays a beautiful melody of a gospel song he is writing. He plays it like a loop track while I try to write a second verse, squinting in the dim. It feels good to try to come together over a song like that, to put my vulnerability on the line and sing out my half-formed lyrics as Dad’s fingers move over the keys.

Then he starts playing a song that chants the words, “How can I serve you?” over and over again. I sway on the piano bench and feel like I am in church. I feel like raising my hands and turning my face upwards, as if God were waiting somewhere in the dark gray clouds.

“I want to sing that song every day of my internship,” I say. I am going to be working at a social service agency in Detroit this summer.

Dad says it is a morning song for him—he played it every day while the kids ate breakfast when he was a student teacher. “Poor kids,” he laughs.

But before this we had taken a walk with the dog down Maple Rapids Road, through that same broken humidity of yesterday evening, the freshly drenched fields breathing with life. We spoke of love, of relationships, of the struggle to find the right partner and the struggle to stick together. We spoke of the joy of being alone but also the pain of it at times. We recognized that we all long for closeness. We talked about our family, about him and mom, about bad decisions and things falling apart. But we spoke with the detachment and compassion that comes from years of slowly chipping away at your heart’s hard places. I heard my father speak out of years of curling up face-down on the living room rug and praying to be a better person. I heard him speak out of years of standing up from that worn spot and going forth into the day to find some way to serve someone. I heard my father speak with a voice I wouldn’t mind taking after.

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And the healing has begun

hem-of-his-garmentThis past Sunday I preached about healing miracles. I realize it seems a trifling subject in light of all the large-scale suffering caused by desperate migratory movements, bad policies, violent outbursts and the violence of business as usual. This time I didn’t even find a way to gracefully weave together individual healing with healing the world.

But I have sat alongside enough death and illness lately to know that the suffering of the individual body, heart and soul is just as important as the big statistical masses and systems. And perhaps the healing we long for in our lives is part of what will bring healing to the world, and part of what will teach us to see every single human as deserving of just as much desperate prayer and unexpected miracles.

I haven’t shared any full-length sermons yet in this space, but I think now is the time.  I’ve added some background introduction so I can share this one here.

The Gospel text designated for this past Sunday is, in my estimation, the most moving and influential of the healing stories of Jesus. Even Sam Cooke sung about it—so it must be important.

In Mark 5:21-43, Jesus is approached by a synagogue leader named Jairus—an important, respected guy in the community—who is grasping at anything that might bring his 12-year-old daughter back from the edge of death. He is so desperate that he humiliates himself by kneeling down at the feet of an eccentric traveling preacher and begging him to heal her.

Jesus, of course, agrees to go home with him. And this rowdy, clingy crowd that’s been following him comes along. As they pass, a local woman sees them and gets an idea. She’s been suffering from mysterious hemorrhaging for 12 very long years, and has become destitute, spending all her money on treatments.

She’ll try anything at this point—and even risk another round of rejection as she slips into the crowd to touch Jesus’ cloak. “If I just touch his cloak, at least, I’ll be healed,” she says to herself, probably more with reckless hope than rational confidence. So she does. And the bleeding stops.

Jesus also stops and says, “Who touched me?” A ridiculous question, his disciples suggest. Everyone pressing into him is touching him. But no, he insists, I felt something powerful flow out of me.

The woman freaks out and confesses. Jesus calls her “daughter,” and confirms that what she felt in her body as a sea change—that’s what it was.

But while Jesus has been dallying with this unfortunate woman who insisted on grabbing his cloak, someone comes to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead. Jesus says he wants to go see the girl anyway. He gets to the house and kicks out the professional mourners who are hanging about wailing. He goes in with just a few of his closest friends and the parents. He grabs that girl’s lifeless hand and commands her: “Girl, get up!” She does. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” he says, “and give her something to eat.”

These two nesting stories of healing are so powerful for us because almost all of us can relate with needing to be healed. We all suffer from some pain, whether in our bodies, in our emotional lives, in our relationships, or in our spirits.

Yet for the very same reason, these stories are difficult to interpret and even more difficult to apply to our lives. They raise the question: “Will I be healed?” Dare we hope for a miraculous healing? Why does that not always happen, no matter how much we pray? Is our faith insufficient? Do we deserve healing less than others? Does our parent, our child, our sibling, our spouse, our friend, not deserve healing?

These questions don’t have easy answeres. But stories like these can guide us in nonlinear ways as we reach for healing, and for meaning in the absence of healing.

One thing this story seems to be affirming is, indeed, that every person deserves healing. You do not need to make it to the top of some triage list in God’s emergency room. Do not worry that you are too old or do not have important enough gifts or are too far gone and messed up to deserve God’s healing power.

The woman who had been bleeding for 12 years would have felt all of these things. She would have felt worthless—and for the people around her, she was.

But when she touched Jesus, he halted his mission to visit a synagogue leader’s 12-year-old daughter on the verge of death. He waited to see who had touched him, and told her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” He did not see her as worthless, but as a daughter of God, worth stopping everything to help. This story shows that those who feel least important are a priority for Jesus.

Another thing this story affirms is that Christ certainly does want healing for our bodies, whether miraculous or altogether ordinary. None of us are suffering because it’s part of some divine secret plan. Jesus even revives a dead girl to heal her and her heartbroken parents!

Yet, we know that most of the time, healing is not so miraculous or so complete. Sometimes, it does not happen at all, or so it seems. When I struggle with this reality, I think of my godfather Mike. He had a profound conversion experience in his 60s as he struggled with some health problems. Even as his Christian faith and his passion for ministries of compassion and justice grew, his health has gradually continued to decline.

But Mike always says, “I never pray for any particular outcome, Sari. I just pray for God’s will.” The healing he has experienced has been an amazing peace with whatever his reality is, and a way to find his calling even in his limitations.

Mike is on hospice care now. When I visited him a week ago, I took in every word he said to me about how much God loves me, and how God will fulfill a purpose in me no matter what. I realized I was starting, finally, to believe these things. I cried healing tears as we talked and read the Bible together, and at one point he said, “I just realized that even dying can be a form of ministry. God is never done with me! He keeps hitting me upside the head with something new I have to do!”

Healing can take many forms, and it may not be the form we wanted or expected. But faith itself can be part of what transforms us and our ailments.

A faith that transforms is not faith that everything will be OK. It is faith that we can entrust ourselves to a bigger and more beautiful reality, and let it continue making our life into something new. As Bible commentator Michael Lindvall writes, “To ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God. God’s mind may not be changed, but I—my mind and heart—may be.”

Finally, the greatest fruit of the healings in these stories is relationship. The most painful part of the woman’s illness was her social isolation. Finding herself in relationship again brings her to a more precious hope than a physical fix.

We may not have the same rigid purity laws that made the ancient Hebrew people avoid an ill person. Yet illness still has a way of making us outcasts from our society with all its own pressures to fit into a certain mold of acceptability, productivity or value.

Christ turns and welcomes anyone who reaches out to touch the hem of his robe. He offers affirmation and companionship. He provides new vision for restoring human relationships.

This relationship is healing and transformative in and of itself. Like the synagogue leader, faith can make us willing to be brought low and humbled when we have enjoyed a high standing. Like the woman with the 12-year bleeding, faith can make us bold and raise us up when we have been beaten down by life. Our spiritual lives can make us real, whole people even when we are still broken.

I have learned some of this firsthand from a pain condition I have had since I was 18. For many years it caused me a great deal of suffering in my psyche and spirit. It is also an illness specific to being a woman, and it is not the kind you usually want to make polite dinner conversation about. It made me feel very isolated at times.

Above all, I feared it would rob me of certain possibilities of finding happiness in marriage and family life. I am very lucky that those fears have not turned out to be warranted. The condition itself has improved, and I have found fulfillment in experiences I thought would never be mine.

But before that, I had to make peace with the possibility that my condition might never get better. And that, as one of my favorite Van Morrison songs goes, is when the healing has begun. That is when I found a healing in my soul that is deeper than any external circumstances of my life. I found my voice again able to sing of hope. That is why I wrote this song, and that is why I sing even now.

Even at the End of Hope

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Photo by Ricardo Angarita

It’s been a heavy week. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain committed suicide and we learned that far too many anonymous Americans are doing the same thing. A 25% increase since 1999. The 10thleading cause of death in our country—and the second among young people.

Suicide, mental illness, and addiction all run in my family. I have been feeling heavy myself as I wrestle with my own demons.

All I know to say at a time like this is that those of us who struggle mightily are not alone. It’s a cliché, I know, but what I mean is not that there is always a wide circle of loving arms waiting to catch your fall (sometimes there’s not) but that there are others who are just as hopeless. And in the solidarity of our sometimes miserable human condition, I think, we find something else at the end of hope.

That’s why I am sharing this poem today. I wrote it more than 4 years ago. But something about it rings true to me now, and while it is my own particular experience, maybe it will make someone feel less alone.

Even at the End of Hope

The day I lost my faith in humankind
I stopped writing in hopeful, messy scribbles.

At lunch I slammed a plastic cup down on the table
and got angry at the one person I love with abandon,
the one person who doesn’t screw over anyone.

I put on headphones and listened to rock songs
about holy detachment and folk songs about holding on.
“People you hate will get their hooks into you.”
“You criticize and detest in others the faults you see in yourself.”
“But you still don’t like to leave before the end of the movie.”
“I’ll be out in the garden dancing with the rain.”

I remembered the sacred spot in the woods
that the bulldozers tore down.
I remembered how much I used to cling to music
and sing to myself until I found meaning in life again.
I remembered my cracked guitar that I can’t play anymore.
I remembered rolling on the floor and dancing in the rain,
with my family, my innocent, crazy, arrogant and pure-hearted family.
I cried and swayed to the songs with my eyes closed
turned in towards the worlds of things that I had lost.
I felt that I would never go home again.

At 8:30 in the evening a ringing started in my ear
because I was tired of hearing things that I couldn’t bear.
I wanted to hate everyone, but I couldn’t.
I said a prayer for them that was half hate
and half begging that God would have mercy on us.
I reorganized my files and edited an already-preached sermon.
You might as well put your life in order
even at the end of hope.

Maybe someday you will find
a little corner of the world to love again,
and you will need to remember where you left everything
the day you lost your faith in humankind.

(Song lyrics from “End of the Movie” by Cake, “Hold On” by Jason Anderson, and “Silver and Gold” by Steppin’ In It)

Heartbreaking Injustice

Justice might not be as compatible with our way of living as it seems. It is so easy to move away from suffering, to move inward to our own self-preservation, to move toward selfishness and evil. Nothing demonstrates this quite like the execution of a controversial teacher and miracle worker who lived in the Roman Empire’s province of Galilee some 2000 years ago. His name was Jesus.

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Heartbreaking Injustice (Good Friday)
Mark 15

“It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed,” you heard someone smart say.

It is better to trust the enforcers of the law than to listen to some woman’s impractical dreams. They know what’s best.

It is better to wrongly accuse a few innocents than to let many criminals off the hook.

It is better to stay neutral than to pick sides. You might ruffle the wrong feathers and get in trouble.

It is better to live a long and prosperous life than to throw it away by fighting for a hopeless cause.

It is better to let others be killed than to risk your own life.

It is better to strike first than to risk being struck.

It is better to yell “Crucify him!” than to be nailed to a cross.

 

Image: “Jesus Christ Crucified (Christ of the Poor)” by Jose Ignacio Fletes Cruz

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice has been coming into fashion lately in political and legal systems, but it’s still a long ways off from being our modus operandi. In the story of Jesus, we find that it is the only way to right a wrong. All he wants is to be able to sit again at that table and eat with those who betrayed, denied and abandoned him.

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Restorative Justice (Maundy Thursday)
Mark 14:12-42

My followers, my fellow workers,
My hope for the future, my friends.
You promised not to grow weary of this hard road
That leads to eternal life.

But you would betray me, disappointed and angry
That you’d given your all without seeing the reward.
You would hand me over me for a tiny treasure,
Not because you thought it was worth it
But because you thought it was useless to hope anymore.

You would desert me, terrified and convinced
That your life would come to nothing in the end.
Bewildered, you had eaten the bread of my body,
Had drunk the cup of my blood, but you forgot already
That not even death could break this life-giving bond.

You would fall asleep, foggy and forgetful
That you had to remain conscious before injustice.
You did not want to face my suffering, or any suffering,
And you had nothing to say when I came to wake you again.
How could you fail so many times? There is no excuse.

What justice suits such cruelty, carelessness, and cowardice?

The justice that offers you my body and blood anyway;
The justice that restores you to life in my kingdom
So that all the suffering you inflicted may be healed
And all the loneliness of being right or being wrong
May come crumbling down in our joyful reuniting.

Impractical Justice

What is practical and justifiable about loving each other, and enjoying our tragically precious time together? Absolutely nothing. That’s why it’s so beautiful. Here’s a tribute to that disorderly, wasteful woman with an alabaster jar.

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Impractical Justice
Mark 11:1-14

A sinful woman, desperate and undone,
I knew what it was like to be stared down
By someone who knew better or had more.
I knew what it was like to be stopped mid-smile,
Put in my place, silenced, scorned.

I was not blessed.
I was not the beloved of anyone.
I was at fault. I was faulty.

Until he came along, and saw me.
He did not stare, or whisper, or turn away.
He drew close. He listened. He loved me.
He lowered the fruit of blessing and said, “Taste, and see,
The goodness. You were made for this.”

What else could I do but give him everything I had?
I knew he, like me, would take the same walk of shame
Before the merchants, the good families, the priests
With no way to tell his story, no way to explain.

I knew he too would be doubted as a fake:
That love and devotion I claimed to harbor?
Those healing miracles he claimed to do?
They throw it all away soon as we offer.

So now as I pour the perfume of my gratitude all over him
It’s no surprise that this, too, would be an offense:
We are accused of being careless with our rations—
Pleasure is not a right for people like us.

But I had to do something to show him, as he had shown me,
That he has infinite, dazzling worth. I wanted to say:
“Even if they tear apart your body and nail it to a cross
Even if they humiliate your soul and throw your memory
in a garbage heap with the ‘common criminals,’
I know now that none us, really, are common.
We are miracles. We are blessings.”

When the hard words come, as they must, he responds:
“This woman has done a beautiful thing.
She will be remembered wherever goodness is ripe.
Before my suffering, it is good for me to smell sweet.
After her suffering, it is good for her to be free.”

Upside Down Justice

During this Holy Week, I will take back up this sensorial adventure by sharing some poems. I am using  themin worship to try to get inside the skin of the strange, beloved, startling stories that give shape to a faith and to so much of our cultural imagination. How can these stories make living in our own skin more beautiful, more bearable, more just? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

Upside Down Justice
Mark 11:1-11 and Philippians 2:5-11

Thereis a parade this time of year

Gleaming weapons, strong horses, Rome’s glory
Armor clinking into town is a quiet warning

Peace is won with a wise dose of fear
Everything is done with the utmost order
Only give them a little freedom to remember the Passover

But this time, there is another parade
Thatenters with noisy joy on the other side of town

A man who gave us hope comes riding along like a clown

He had to ask to borrow a donkey, still untamed
A baby animal who wanders carefree where it will
As his skinny, vulnerable frame rides it down the hill

The ruling men across town might not think he’s anyone
But here the children know his name and the birds sing it
As we lay down cloaks in a patchwork joke of a royal carpet

And the children, the children are shouting, “Hosanna to the king!”
Save us, they cry, because only love, powerful and weak
Will bring the change, the justice, we are dying to seek

Listen not to the clean clinking of the mighty;
Listen to the children singing.

Image: “Palm Sunday” by John August Swanson

Water Loves

This is the fifth installment of a series about water. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

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Photograph by Rylan Brown

A few weeks ago I returned again to my home of summer healing: the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, on a peninsula within the peninsula that is my dear state of Michigan. I have gone there with my father almost every year since I can remember, just as he did with his parents. My mother used to come. Sometimes my siblings come. But I treat it like a religion, a holy pilgrimage to which I am bound.

Whenever I go back to those dunes, and rediscover the muscles in my legs that are needed to walk them, and jump into that sweet water of Lake Michigan, my body remembers what it was made for. The water holds me like a mother. The waves rock me like a lullaby. It is cold but then it starts to feel warm, just like I imagine it must be when you first come out into the world screaming and alone, and then your body starts to acclimate to the good air you breathe, to the other flesh that still sticks to yours, to the milk that feeds you and the water that cleans you.

When we were in the womb, the water of our mother’s body surrounded us and connected us to the source of life we needed to grow. When we are in the world, we dive into lakes and rivers and remember that the fresh water of the earth surrounds us and connects us to all life, to all flourishing and growth.

This water of our Mother Earth’s body is as old as time—the same water we swim in has passed through the bodies of Jesus, of Muhammad, of Mahlia Jackson and of the one you loved who has gone on and left you now. And it has all watered the ground that brings forth plants to eat, that nourishes animals and insects and microorganisms that keep the planet breathing and babies being born.

Get in it. Feel it all around you and know that the warm sweetness of life surrounds you. As my friend Brian Lillie wrote in a song once, “This ocean we swim is no place to die of thirst—love is all there is.”

Or if you can’t get in it, do as I did this past weekend at Earthwork Harvest Gathering, and get messy with it. I had gone back for the first time in 10 years to this festival that also reminds me of my connectedness to all life—a harmonic connectedness to a great web of musical life—and I participated in a water blessing ceremony for the first time as a pastor, alongside representatives of Jewish, Islamic, Native American and Druid traditions. When my turn came, I invited everyone to take out whatever water-bearing recipient they might have, open it up, and pour that water all over themselves. I gleefully demonstrated. In this way we remember that the essence of our beings can flow as unstoppably as water to fulfill the sacred purpose we each were given.

But we cannot just keep blithely receiving the water of life; we also have to take care of it. Water only gives eternally if we give back the same love it has shown us. The water that has recycled itself into the clouds for millions of years can still be poisoned with contamination beyond repair for countless generations. That is what thousands of Native Americans from tribes across the country have insisted in recent weeks as they have gathered in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipline: if we allow our greed for cheap oil to poison the water—as such pipelines almost inevitably do—we poison our own lives, and desecrate the sacred.

One of the other participants in the water blessings ceremony, my friend Aaron Allen, explained how the word for water in Hebrew is the word for mother if you invert it, and if you separate it in two it means “what if.” He concluded: “What if we treated water with the same respect, love and care that we would treat our own mother? And what if we continue not to do that?”

One of my dear ones that has gone on and left me is my friend Phil Wintermute. He wrote simple songs from the heart, and in one of them he dreamed he was made out of water—just a big bag of water walking around. “Water is the love of the earth,” he sings. So we are also big bags of love walking around, and we drink from love, and we swim in the love that gives us life, and it flows around us everywhere.

Never, for a moment, take all that water for granted. It is a gift born of love.

Praying for Water

This is the fourth installment of a series about water, a poem-prayer written near the beginning of 2016 that touches on the themes of ecological disaster and suffering that were discussed in the second installment, but also reaches toward hope, transformation and the nearness of the Holy Spirit explored in the third installmentClick here for the introductory entry. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

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I trust that I, even I,
can be transformed.
I trust you to take me and shake me,
And put me back where I belong;
To make me into your song.

Do you cry for me?
Do you weep raggedly?
Do your hold your aching chest

for the children poisoned
by the trickle-down water of greed in Flint?
Do you gasp and grab fistfuls of your shirt
for the fishing villages and the fish
along the bone-dry basin of Lake Poopó?
Do you long with us to pour out rain
and the fragrant oil of peace on
the parched and cracked communities of Colombia?

I can only keep moving
in this dense haze of my little pain,
of the world’s dry, tortured rage,
If I know you are crying with me.
Dying with us.
If I know I have a great high priest
who can sympathize with my weakness.

My limbs are weak, head sore from worry.
My movements are constrained,
wing tips cut now by the god of worldly comfort,
by my own numb insecurity.

But you, you vibrate somewhere deep
in my muscles, in my blood.
You flow and surge, keeping my spirit awake
And restless.

Water / Falls

This is the third installment of a series about water. Click here for the introductory entry. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

I took a road trip from Michigan to Georgia with my mother in 2014, and along our journey through the Appalachian mountains we had a series of encounters with waterfalls that left me forever changed. I believe I never understood or even fully believed in the Holy Spirit until I had drawn near to these waterfalls. During the following semester at seminary—which was my last—I replaced going to church on Sunday with hiking to different waterfalls within driving distance of Atlanta. The following six-part poem reflects one of these Sunday “worship services” in the woods of Northern Georgia, exploring what we can learn from water—about our essential nature, about our bodies and their goodness as well as their limitations, about God, and about love.

Raven Cliff Fallsraven-cliff-falls3869

I.

Just by flowing down, water carves away
at the stagnate structures
of million-year-old stone
and makes new shapes:
smooth curves, round cubbyholes, deep pools.

It makes a way out of no way.

But first it makes its peace with structure,
no matter how constraining it is.
And it takes a very, very long time.

Which is stronger: water or stone?

II.

Sometimes humans make
beautiful things
without harming anyone:
stones in the middle of water
piled up very carefully,
as if they were sitting and thinking,
balanced so precariously
but never falling over.

They startle the landscape,
and take away nothing at all
from the harmonious order of things.

III.

The ferns! The ferns
are so soft that I want
to lie down and make my bed of them
even if I get wet—
because everything is always wet—
alongside my love forever,
sighing in each other’s arms.

Ours is a forbidden love,
that flows in torrents against
what I think
are good sound structures
for my life.
All true love is forbidden.

IV.

On top of a dizzying cliff,
like God’s rough finger
jutting out of the earth
with a flat callous at the tip,
I imagine a monk
should meditate here.
The water rushes down around us
but we cannot see it;
we can only imagine it tickling
the crevice of God’s hand.

I say “we” because
there are two insects that look like giant bees
lying on their sides at the base of a spindly tree,
heads locked in a frenetic, passionate embrace.
Their countless little limbs
swinging spinning interlocking
faster than my own ten fingers can move,
as if they wanted to devour each other’s
little black and yellow faces.
And as I watch them I start to think
that their heads really are beautiful,
desirable, at least if I were one of them.

And I want to cling to my love like that,
to grab at his face, his skin, his limbs
until he leaves what I’m hungry for stuck to my body;
or whatever it is that giant bees do
when they love each other.

V.

I have fear in my body
when I try to head back down
the steep rocks and roots and slippery mud.
I am afraid of falling.

I think about how I move
and how I hold myself still.

I am proud that I have not fallen,
but the sad secret is this:
I do not move with grace.
I don’t let myself move too much at all.
A jerk in my neck, a jerk in my hips,
a stiffness I never really let go of,
and I make my way, all right, as I fight
against form and flow.

How would water do this?

And finally, when I am almost to the flat land,
I set my foot where I know I shouldn’t—
my one feeble dare—
and I slide into mud, scrapes and bruises,
embarrassed and defeated.

VI.

I decide not to wash
the swaths of mud off my legs,
not even in the soft ferns.
Let them think what they will
when they see me hiking back.

The secret that only God knows is this:

I am made wholly of water.